Kimberly Jenkins Wants to Help Decolonize Our Understanding of Fashion

The fashion scholar shares her hopes for her new online platform, the Fashion and Race Database.
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Kimberly Jenkins

Kimberly Jenkins

Kimberly Jenkins has made waves in the fashion education sphere for shedding necessary light on the role race has historically played in fashion. 

As a part-time lecturer, she taught a popular elective "Fashion and Race" course at Parsons School of Design, where she got her MA in fashion studies. She later expanded on the themes of that course by curating an exhibit of the same name, which the school hosted in 2018. (It's now available to view on Google Arts and Culture.) At the beginning of this year, Jenkins left Parsons — and New York — to accept a full-time, tenure-track assistant professor of fashion studies position at Ryerson University in Toronto. The new role gave Jenkins the stability and funding to ramp up efforts on a project she'd been working on all along: the Fashion and Race Database, which officially relaunched this month.

The database is an online platform designed to provide teachers, students and anyone interested in learning with open-source tools that "expand the narrative of fashion history and challenge mis-representation within the fashion system," per its tagline. There are sections for books, films, lectures, exhibitions, articles and podcast episodes, as well as various essays and articles.

The idea came to Jenkins when she was compiling research for her Fashion and Race course. She noticed how challenging it was to find relevant resources. 

"I thought, with all these sources that I've amassed and things I've kind of been looking through, I wanted to create this creative project that would lay out everything visually and categorically in terms of how I was learning and understanding fashion and race," she tells me over the phone. (Before the database, this took the form of the Fashion and Race Syllabus, which she compiled with fellow fashion scholar Rikki Byrd.)

Among other goals, Jenkins hopes for the Fashion and Race Database to provide paid opportunities for students and BIPOC writers. And that obviously requires capital.

On Monday, the Fashion and Race Database launched its first fundraising campaign, with a little celebrity help: As announced on John Mulaney's Instagram, the comedian and his wife Anna are matching all donations up to $20,000. (Anna Mulaney, a textile artist and fashion researcher, reached out to Jenkins offering to host a fundraiser.)

Ahead, Jenkins discusses what went into creating the database, the serendipitous timing of its relaunch, what it means to decolonize fashion history and her future plans for the database, from events to new revenue streams. Read on for the highlights.

I know the database began as an educational syllabus. Why did you want to expand it and make it accessible to everyone?

I wanted to build this new project because it was really something that I wanted to connect with a suite of pedagogy that I was slowly building at Parsons School of Design. Creating the Fashion and Race course called for me to do months and months and months of research — I spent a summer developing the syllabus for it and that called for me to go through various libraries, database systems and kind of build a course from scratch about creating a framework within my field of fashion studies on the intersections of fashion and race. 

By the time 2017 rolled around... I had dreams of making it something even bigger; at the time, the database was only as good as the financial resources I had at hand and my own personal bandwidth, so it took like three years of just working as a part-timer, broke, hustling all the time as a part-time lecturer. Finally, when I was given the role at Ryerson, a tenure-track position, it promised the funding and institutional support that was so needed and critical for expanding.

The third component was an exhibition. It created three entry points for people, whether you were an enrolled university student, or you're an everyday person just on your computer finding the database getting free content and resources, or you want to experience it in an exhibition form, this really immersive form.

When I enrolled in the Parsons Fashion Studies program back in 2011, my dream and my hope for my future career was to become well-known for what I do. I wanted to be this public educator, this public-facing intellectual, so I just wanted things to be accessible. In academia — depending on what corners of academia you're in — there's this priority to make things private. Writing is oftentimes inaccessible. Things are written in a very dense way. While I'm not saying there's anything completely wrong with that, just for me and my angle and what I wish to do with my master's degree and do with my career was to take all these exciting ideas and all these resources and things I was learning in academia and reinterpret it, kind of re-present it to the public. They can't go through these paywalled institutional databases and spaces, so I'm trying to test the waters of what the boundaries are for me legally to share as much content as possible that I discover or find within the ivory tower.

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In working on this, are there certain people you have in mind, who you hope this database and this information reaches?

Of course, the people who already love fashion studies. This is also a service to people of color, Black, Indigenous people of color, people who felt like their stories or their fashion items or their style was kind of left in the margins of fashion history or left out of fashion museums. But it's also for the pedestrian audience, people who are just curious. 

FRD_Cover Image_Fabiola Jean-Louis

Tell me about the timing of this relaunch. Were you always planning to launch around this time or did current events accelerate things?

No. The semester ended in Canada at the end of April and I was so excited because I knew, this is my chance. By late April, I started looking for a web developer to help me — I found him and then once we made an agreement, we started working on the database with plans to launch it in early July. What I was thinking about was my community: educators who are probably going to have time on their hands in the summer and wanted to plan for their courses that fall. Never did I think, nor did RJ, who's my web developer, all of this was going to happen.

You talk about wanting to decolonize the study of fashion — what do you mean by that? 

Another word I've started adding to that which is even more understandable for some people is 'decentralize.' That's this idea of thinking about how the canon of beauty and the canon of fashion history has centered a certain group of people, which in this case is white, Eurocentric or Euro-American identity. All of their beauty standards, all of their 'geniuses,' we've had to memorize all of those people. We've had to shape ourselves — from photographers, stylists, editors all around satisfying that rubric of beauty and fashionability for so long, and as a person teaching fashion history that was sort of the must-do list. I had to just always mention the Dior, the Saint Laurent and all those people. Now it's time to expand, which is the tagline of our database: expand the narrative of fashion history. These people have always been there: Black designers, Latinx designers, indigenous craftspeople, all of it, models, artists, textile artists — they've all been there and they've just been left on the margins or for elective courses to address. It's like the B-side of fashion history. It's time to center those people and expand and create one great story.

And when it comes to decolonizing, it's about reflecting on how the impact, the legacy of colonialism has shaped and influenced what we see as beautiful. 'Good' design when it comes to aesthetics. What real beauty looks like. Language, also. 

I have to give a shout out to all the scholars who are in decolonizing studies; I'm just kind of summarizing. I urge anyone reading this to look into the discourse on decolonizing studies; there's countless scholars doing this work and explaining exactly what that looks like. In our directory on the Fashion and Race Database, I think we have a few projects and collectives, like Decolonizing Design, that people can find. That's my way of pointing people to the fact that we're not the only ones doing this, this isn't all my great idea. Welcome to the conversation, you're late.

You also talk about wanting to provide opportunities to young people in the industry — how do you hope to do that?

[The database is] sort of like a research laboratory, so now we can bring on research assistants where they can do an internship with us all summer long or for a whole semester, get paid, get internship or course credits. This is an opportunity for them to do this research and for it to have major impact. It's not just something that they wrote for a paper or for a class and it was kind of forgotten; now they get to actually bring some of that work or recycle some of that work and bring it onto the Fashion and Race Database and let the world see it. They get to spend an entire summer or semester studying and collecting resources with me, which is almost like a master's class. 

In our essays and opinions section, with our fundraising campaign — which just kicked off today with Anna and John Mulaney — those funds are going to be critical to also paying contributors. I'm really adamant about paying for intellectual labor. Often people are invited to do a piece and it's just for exposure or just adding a service. I want to have this fundraising campaign so we can get artists, designers, business leaders, people who are working in the industry to be able to write essays or op-eds or add their research and I can pay you for it, a fair or incentivizing wage. It's going to create opportunities not just for students but for people in the industry or out of school right now who still want to write something.

Students conducting a visual analysis exercise for the course ‘Fashion and Race’ at Parsons School of Design, 2016

Students conducting a visual analysis exercise for the course ‘Fashion and Race’ at Parsons School of Design, 2016

What are your future plans for this platform? In-person events once things open up maybe?

There's even so much we can do in the digital space. I'd love to have a book club, I'd love to have online courses, or maybe we have a scholar in a different location where they record a one-off lecture about any given topic for the database. I'd love to have a physical symposium, like a weekend event or two-day event where we gather scholars who are featured on the database or speak to what we talk about on the database. You could hear scholars; you could hear designers, models, editors from publications, everyone joining together to talk about all this. That would be the top goal. And of course, a podcast that updates people on the latest items that we've uploaded or added to the database. It would be awesome if we could be in conversation with some of the authors of those pieces.

If I’m reaching for the stars, a scholarship, also. I've spoken to so many Black, Indigenous, POC people who want to follow in my footsteps or go into a grad program and it's so daunting because it's so expensive, especially when you're trying to convince your family, 'Hey, I want to go get a masters degree in fashion studies,' it just seems very risky. I would love to support in any way I can or at least with resources or books or anything else they need.

Aside from fundraising, are there any other revenue streams you're considering?

We would love sponsorships; if there's a brand that's having challenges, it would be great to have a brand partner, even if it's just temporary, where we're researching something for them or from their archives or helping them address a certain issue. Or if you just want to be a sponsor for our content or the symposium or podcast series or an actual talk series, they can add their name to that. Content partners, also: We'd love if you're a museum or an institution or a secret archive that has really amazing stuff in your archive that we can use for our column, Objects That Matter, where we analyze an object and talk about appropriation and all that stuff, we would love that.

You were recently named to the Black in Fashion Council's Executive Board for Education/Community Outreach/Mentorship. Can you share anything about what you hope to do in that role?

I'm excited to see what that could look like in terms of reaching out to schools, alumni groups, Black fashion alumni groups, helping to support them. If there's an African design or fashion club or community initiative, we would love to hear about it and see how we can support. We're still figuring out how that would look.

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